What were Cubans doing in Ethiopia?

Have you ever come across the Amharic language? I definitely haven’t before I made the decision to visit Ethiopia for my research project. Neither did I think that two countries like Cuba and Ethiopia might have influenced each other’s languages for historical reasons. In this post I will share a couple of fascinating facts and stories I learnt about Amharic, about Ethiopia and you will also find out what all this has to do with Cuba…

Let me first explain why I’m going to Ethiopia at all. As part of my PhD, I’m studying health interventions for disabilities in different cultures. Essentially, I’m interested in learning how organisations with varying amounts of resources available decide to use one intervention over another. I’m also interested in why people are motivated to ‘bring about change in health’ and what drives people to do humanitarian work. Finally, I’m also looking at ways in which health- and disability-related organisations negotiate interests and make decisions regarding a health intervention’s financing, adaptation, outcome measures and sustainability. To give you an idea, the kind of people I’m working with are caregivers of children with disabilities, staff members of mental health or disability-focused NGOs, health care staff, local government and UN agencies dealing with related questions. To be able to compare how such processes work in various income settings, I’m visiting different countries, one of which is Ethiopia.

I will dedicate a whole post to explain why I chose Ethiopia, but in a nutshell: I’m hoping to study the questions above in a variety of income settings. As my secondary supervisor is permanently based in Addis Ababa, it made sense to choose Ethiopia to be one of my lower income case studies. Because of my upcoming fieldwork, I decided to go and try to learn at least the basics of one of the local languages, Amharic.

Amharic, the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic, is one of the official languages of Ethiopia. However, it proved to be rather difficult for me to find a place in the UK where I could take Amharic classes. When I started my PhD, I talked to some of my Ethiopian colleagues in King’s College London and asked for their advice. All of them said that other than paying for a private teacher, the only option (in Europe!) is to register for a course in SOAS University.

I hadn’t come across SOAS before, but it turned out it is a world-leading institution dedicated to Asian, African and Middle-Eastern cultures. They run Amharic classes every year for beginners, so I took the challenge to find funding and register as an exchange student. After all, it worked out.

Let me share a couple of fascinating things I learnt about Amharic.

So first, the Amharic script is written in ge’ez, in the liturgical language of the Ethiopian  and Eritrean Orthodox Church. It isn’t exactly an alphabet because it isn’t the sounds that the script depicts, but rather syllables. This is what it looks like:

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Excerpt from my Amharic notes

The symbols you write down are called ‘fidels’ and they can take as much as 7 different orders! A change in the order of the fidel means that you change its pronunciation by modifying the vowel added to a consonant.

One time, our Amharic teacher decided to introduce us to the world of bargaining in Ethiopia and taught us how to deal with prices in Addis Ababa. Here is what I learnt: most of the time there are no fixed prices so you will need to engage with the merchant to make a deal. You should first ask about the ‘real price’ of the product and the merchant will give you a number. But then, instead of accepting this number or trying to bargain from the very beginning, you ask what the ‘selling price’ is: there is a chance that you will be offered a substantially lower price. So it is from this selling price that you start the real negotiation. In the very end, once the deal is made, you thank the merchant for the deal.

One of my classmates, a student who grew up in London and has Ethiopian parents, had a very interesting question about bargaining: ‘The last time I was in Ethiopia, I overheard people thanking others by saying cigir yallam. But this is not the Amharic expression I learnt from my parents, it just felt really strange to the Amharic ear.’ And then, turning to us, students of non-Ethiopian origins, she went on to explain: ‘Cigir yallam, literally translated, means no problem. But we just don’t say this in Ethiopia. It really sounds strange.’

And then our teacher answered: ‘Yes, it is strange, because it comes from the Cubans, it is a literal translation from Spanish.’

This absolutely shocked me. If there are two countries that I thought would never be related to each other, then those certainly are Cuba and Ethiopia. Coming from Europe, I instantly started thinking of some European country that might have colonised both of these areas, but I just couldn’t think of any.

The answer to what the Cubans were doing in Ethiopia dates back to the 70s, when a couple of things happened all at the same time. Ras’Tafari, who became king under the name of Hayla Selasse, started losing his power in the 70s, while the country’s population was also experiencing from extreme hunger. Meanwhile, Somalia was aiming for reuniting Somali people living in neighboring countries, such as in Ethiopia, and went on to attack Ethiopians. On top of all this, in 1974 a revolution and civil war started in Ethiopia. It was Fidel Castro who sent troops to help this revolution succeed and to defend the country from the Somali attacks. This is how the Cubans ended up in Addis Ababa. Then, as the urban legend goes according to my Amharic teacher, Cubans just literally translated no problem to Amharic and the expression has lived on since then. This is the story of cigir yallam.

I’m leaving for Ethiopia in less than two weeks. I wonder how much I can use of my newly acquired Amharic knowledge over there. I’ll keep you posted.

 

More about Ethiopia:

If you are interested in the Ethiopian culture and history, a book I recently read and I warmly advise anyone to read is Kirsten Stoffregen-Pedersen’s Les Ethiopiens – Fils d’Abraham. The author used live and study in Jerusalem where she came across the Ethiopian church and expat community. This is the way in which she fell in love with the culture, started learning Amharic and wrote a book about the country’s history, demographics, religions and culture.

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What the Oracle of Delphi has to do with my PhD

One day I was sitting in a bar with some PhD friends. We had a beer and we were talking about how research was moving slower than we expected. We were a bit exhausted after a long week of reviewing literature and writing study protocols. I told them that I was planning to examine stakeholder decision-making in global health and that I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. And then one of them looked at me in the eyes and said “Well you just do a Delphi”. I didn’t know what my friend meant, but I looked it up.

The story of Delphi dates back to the flourishing times of Ancient Greece.

…Once upon a time, on a sun-light hill covered with olive trees there was a sanctuary called Delphi. Its temple was dedicated to Apollo, the god of music, truth and prophecy in Greek mythology. As the legend goes, the site originally belonged to the Mother Earth Gaia and was guarded by Python, her serpent child. However, Apollo fought and killed Python in a battle. In the place where the serpent was defeated he founded a sanctuary with the help of the people of Crete. This is where the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess called Pythia, was later speaking for him, divining the future to many generations that followed. The Oracle’s figure was of great importance in the history and literature of Ancient Greece and her personality is shrouded in mystery since then. Major leaders sought advice from her and consulted her before main decisions. As for example Sophocles tells in his Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, the King of Thebes consulted her about who his parents really were, as well as about the cause of a plague epidemic in his town. If you go to Delphi in today’s Greece, you will still find the ruins of a temple developed in the 8th century B. C. according to historians.

What is truly fascinating about this legend is that the Oracle of Delphi lives on since then: the heritage of Delphi in Ancient Greece found its way to nowadays’ social sciences.

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The ancient sanctuary of Delphi in modern day Greece

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just like Pythia was forecasting the future of peoples, social scientists are aiming to predict how individuals and communities behave, change and react to various circumstances. And one way in which they do so is called the Delphi technique.

The method was named after Delphi because it is using the opinion of established experts like academics, senior professionals and policy-makers to reach agreement on a particular question at stake. What is unique about the technique is that it gathers views in iterations and provides the opportunity to give feedback to participants in between rounds of data collection. It was first used in the late 40s in military defense projects. Later on scholars started to apply it in studies of group decision making and consensus in order to evaluate complex social problems and forecast possible outcomes.

In a nutshell, this is what a Delphi looks like:

  1. You design your questionnaires according to your research question
  2. You invite a range of experts who will then anonymously take part in your study
  3. You collect data in at least two rounds, if not more
  4. You provide feedback to participants in between rounds
  5. Participants reach consensus on the question at stake
  6. You analyse your data

When I learnt about the Delphi method, I was first very excited about it and thought that it could be the next step for my PhD. It has become popular because it allows for an anonymous participation of a wide range of high profile experts. The anonymity is of crucial importance as it ensures that no one dominates the consensus process because of his or her position in real life. The Delphi method is now used in a wide range of fields from biological conservation, through testing protocols in information systems research and examining policy design and implementation in a participatory research framework, to informing the evaluation of capacity-building in government – and this list is not exhaustive.

The Delphi can include interviews and focus group discussions. In case of a qualitative Delphi, analysis of data relies primarily on extracting key patterns emerging from the accounts of participants. Meanwhile, it can also involve tasks in which participants rate and prioritise concepts and solutions. The level of agreement between participants is then usually measured using a value called Cohen’s Kappa. This value evaluates the distance between ratings of participants.

Then I went on to read more about the method and I found out about its critiques too: how time-consuming it is, how low the adherence rate to participation might be and how little we know about the validity and reliability of the technique and its outcomes. Some scholars also argue that the interpretation of Kappa as a measure of agreement and what is meant by consensus can be prone to the researcher’s subjective decision.

Getting to know this technique also made me think about the extent to which we trust expert opinion, especially in the age of ‘fake news’ and populism, replication crisis in social sciences and when journals like the Financial Times claim that experts are out of fashion. When the Delphi method gathers professionals to reach conclusion regarding a specific matter, it ultimately makes a decision on who has the right knowledge, who is an established-enough expert to rely on his or her views. What makes then an expert? Is it the time spent in the field? Is it the position of a person? Is it the social capital that one has or maybe something completely different?

Whether or not I will be using the Delphi method in my PhD, it is interesting to consider the fact that although the sanctuary of Delphi is in ruins by now, we still have today’s Oracles in the form of experts and influencers guiding opinions, values and solutions – for the better or worse.

 

If you are interested in reading studies using the Delphi technique, have a look at:

Boulkedid and his colleagues’ work on the use of Delphi in healthcare:

Boulkedid, R., Abdoul, H., Loustau, M., Sibony, O., & Alberti, C. (2011). Using and reporting the Delphi method for selecting healthcare quality indicators: a systematic review. PloS one, 6(6), e20476.

Landeta’s thoughts on the extent to which Delphi is a valid method to be used in social sciences:

Landeta, J. (2006). Current validity of the Delphi method in social sciences. Technological forecasting and social change, 73(5), 467-482.

 

If you want to know more about Kappa values: 

Campbell, S. M., Shield, T., Rogers, A., & Gask, L. (2004). How do stakeholder groups vary in a Delphi technique about primary mental health care and what factors influence their ratings?. BMJ Quality & Safety, 13(6), 428-434.

 

If you want to know more about Delphi in Ancient Greece:

https://www.coastal.edu/intranet/ashes2art/delphi2/misc-essays/oracle_of_delphi.html

 

The PhD-dilemma: are you ready yet?

Have you been pondering whether to go to grad school following your masters? Not sure whether research is your cup of tea? Hesitant if a PhD is necessary for your career plans ahead? Then the following thoughts are for you.

Recently, I have been asked on a couple of occasions why I decided to go to grad school and I conversed with people wondering what the right carrier choice would be following their masters degree. I clearly remember how difficult I found this question too. While working on my masters project, everyone was already talking about PhD applications. Meanwhile, lecturers strongly pushed us towards the idea that the PhD is the one and only right step forward.

I’m dedicating this post to all those people who are hesitating whether it’s worth committing at least 3 years to a PhD program, following all those years already spent in school. I don’t think earning a PhD is always the right choice. I don’t think either it’s necessary to apply for a PhD right after a graduate program and I believe that applying for one can be because of very different motivations and reasoning. I’m sure that various aspects of the decision and of the PhD itself vary by field. Still, I hope the following considerations may be useful for some readers.

I’ll start by listing a couple of things people on the other side of the academic career ladder (those already having a PhD) rarely tell you.

You CAN do applied work

I know a lot of people (including me) fearing that a PhD is all about lab-based, theoretical work. Now this may very well be the case in certain fields of research, but I can assure anybody interested in social sciences that the work to be done depends primarily on you: on the question you propose and the methodology you want to apply.

You DO have time for other projects

You have the control: you set your own timing and schedule, your research questions and any next steps. You have the responsibility over assigning time for separate projects and for your personal life. Of course this may somewhat depend on your supervisor too, I have friends whose timing is overseen by the supervisors, but this is not always the case. Again, you are in charge of changing the situation if you are unhappy about it.

NOBODY else is responsible

I regularly see that even graduate students happen to blame others for their mistakes or lack of work. I made this mistake myself as well, let me use this story to illustrate what I mean. When I moved to the UK, handed in my first written assignment and got back the results, I was devastated. Not only was it a low grade, but the feedback I received was  suggesting that I needed to work much harder if I wanted to perform better. I was first blaming the markers and the system in general: how many things and in what why are unfair. Then I realised the only one who could change the situation was me. It was entirely my decision to start a degree, it was my decision to do it in the UK, it was up to me to start improving my written English and it was up to me as well to learn more about the expectations of the English academic system. Of course it is never easy to admit that the work has to be done solely by you. But during your PhD nobody else would.

Okay, now a couple of things that can give a good reason to finally apply and start doing that PhD. Again, this list is mostly based on my experience (My work is mainly global health and international development-focused, thus my thoughts should be taken with care).

Why would you want to do a PhD?

  1. Because you are interested in something specific: It is this simple. You want to take advantage of the opportunity that you can spend 3 years looking at a question you are particularly interested in. You should be able to explain clearly why it is that very question that you are interested in. The PhD is a piece of paper at the end of the day that you earn by thinking and working on a question chosen by you. I believe this is the most important aspect and yet it proved to be the most difficult  one for me. I bet this part causes problems for people like me: I’m interested in a large variety of things. In school I did generally well in most subjects, not excelling at them necessarily, but I coped well and this didn’t help me choose a specialty.
  2. Because you also have a general interest in research: You like to look at things through the lens of a researcher, you enjoy understanding complex processes in a controlled framework. You can not do a PhD without enjoying the full research process.
  3. Because others have a PhD too: why deny, the fact that some other people you care about have a PhD definitely matters or at least mattered to me. If people in your field or in your family have a PhD, it may impact your decision-making. Social pressure counts a lot.

Finally, as I wasn’t sure if my considerations are in any way similar to others’, I asked my friends on Facebook why they decided to pursue a PhD. Here are a couple of answers, they speak for themselves:

“If you do research and work in certain fields of science, after a while it is basically expected and recommended to have PhD in order to get higher positions. So, in my case I considered it as step towards widening my future perspectives. In addition, for sure you learn a lot about publishing, structured thinking, planning experiments, etc during the preparatory years.”

“It isn’t the PhD itself that matters to me, but more the path leading to earn that degree. The studies you design, the validation of your research experiences, the clarification of your results and the publication of them…The PhD is about documenting a part of your life long learning. (The Hungarian original: Nem a PhD a lényeg számomra, hanem az oda vezető út. A kutatások, tapasztalatok hitelesítése, összerendezése(!), publikálása… A PhD a Life Long Learning egy részének a dokumentálása.)”

“Money”

“Pain is temporary, Dr. is permanent.”

“Because it’s a profound experience: one is face to face every day with what they love most. Plus, even the driest of PhDs is likely to be more stimulating than the average office role.”

“It seemed like a natural next step because I did well in my undergrad and masters. I liked to hang out with smart people and I also thought the research is about exploring the unknown and using your brain and being smart. (the reality didn’t meet my expectations…)”

 

 

A call from Buenos Aires, the European dream and people who ‘make it’

This post is about opportunities and about how they arise. Opinions I came across regarding why some people ‘make it’, views on why some people are successful and have better career opportunities while others do not. I will present these through three stories, encounters with different people.

Back in August, I traveled to the southern tip of our planet, to Argentina, in order to attend a conference on youth empowerment through business and entrepreneurship. I landed a couple of days earlier in Buenos Aires and stayed in a youth hostel before the event officially started. One morning I had to wake up very early as I had a scheduled call with a regional director of a big media company in Eastern Europe. I wanted to make this call for a very specific reason: I was looking for sponsorship to fund a Hungarian delegation to attend the One Young World Summit* in The Hague in October. A few minutes before this call was due, I was sitting in the hostel’s restaurant, drinking coffee, watching the sunny but cold Argentinian winter, ready with my pitch.

Then my phone rang and the call started. At the time, I had a rather limited experience with making a pitch for sponsorship and I had a similarly vague idea of what it is like to negotiate with corporate leaders. I wanted to argue that by funding talented youth from Hungary with entrepreneurial thinking to attend a global platform of leaders just like One Young World, one can make a considerable change in those young people’s life. They will then go on and create ideas, businesses for the greater good, whatever that means. I wanted to showcase my own example too: had I not had the funding to study in the UK years ago, it would have been impossible for me to engage in any of the projects I am currently working on. However, my argument failed miserably.

The regional director on the other side of the call interrupted me early on while making my case and posed the following question: ‘Who stops others to go down the same route? Who stops anyone else making it? Why can’t other Hungarians go, study abroad, look for opportunities for themselves?’

There I was, not knowing what to say. Of course, hypothetically everyone could. Of course, on the surface, nobody is intentionally stopping people of various backgrounds living up to their dreams or climbing the ladder of social mobility. But is it an option, really? Is it really about one’s inner motivation and hard work to ‘make it’?

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Somewhere in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, where I made the call (the cover picture of the post was also taken in this district, in a cafe where I turned out to be quite exotic, being a Hungarian solo traveler in South America)

The answer came through another encounter. I met Hashi Mohamed** on the Ditchley Festival of Ideas***. He is a barrister and a broadcaster at the BBC, somebody who inspired my thinking to a great extent. The Festival of Ideas was a conference for young professionals mostly from Oxbridge and London elite universities as well as for Global Shapers. The environment itself made me think: could students from any backgrounds, any universities reach out and attend such an event?

I went to listen to the panel on wealth inequality (funnily enough in an invite-only event) where Hashi Mohamed spoke beside three experts with a background in economics. Universal basic income, wealth redistribution and inequality of opportunities were discussed, but to me, it was Hashi’s ideas that stood out. He spoke about our European dream, the narrative that I also heard a billion times as a kid: if you work hard enough, you will get there, you will make it, you will succeed in life and get to top positions. He spoke about how this narrative can be false most of the times, how your default setting (your family, the political and economic situation of the neighborhood you grow up in) will predispose certain careers, certain pathways for you and how difficult it really is to make any change whatsoever in this. About his own career progress, he said he needed a considerable amount of luck, fortunate events following one another, irrespective of his intellectual abilities. I resonated with his views greatly and I was thinking about how this could be changed. How opportunities could be more open and easier to access to a wider range of communities. While thinking, a memory from Cambridge popped into my head.

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I took this picture in Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, where the conference took place.

This third story dates back to the beginning of my masters program in Cambridge and it is more of a short encounter I overheard rather than a personal experience. I was sitting on a bench near the city centre and two students passed by, one complaining to the other, let me try to quote: ‘…and this guy, not only was he begging for money, when I didn’t give him any, he started to follow me and kept shouting at me that I’m a rich bastard…okay, sure, we are wealthy, but come on man leave me alone…’

Cambridge has a history of fights between town and gown; it is also well-known to be one of the most unequal places in the United Kingdom. This short conversation I overheard made me question whether or not people reflect on their own social status, their own default setting and if they identify any responsibilities coming with their position. Being in Cambridge means one is privileged, in one way or another: because of intellect, because of financial status, because of opportunities. What does this mean for someone inside and outside this environment?

Let me reflect a bit on these three stories. Accessing opportunities in our world seems to be about playing the domino game: as for myself, opportunities have so far arisen in a way that one led directly to another: I went to Cambridge and therefore doors opened up: I got to intern with the World Health Organisation. Because I interned at WHO, my CV became strong enough to get scholarship to the One Young World Summit (from which I had previously been rejected). Because I attended the summit, I had a higher chance to being accepted in the Global Shapers Community. Because I became a Global Shaper, I was invited to the conference in Ditchley and I could attend the conference in Argentina. One leading to the other. A set of fortunate events coinciding with my personal background. Some people are defaulted into having such opportunities easier, or in a more difficult way, or not having them at all.

If I was to have that call with a corporate director again and if I was asked where ‘success’ stems from, I would now have a somewhat clearer answer. I’m not saying working hard is not important, but I find that there is a strong element of luck and that of one’s default environment having a heavy impact on one’s access to opportunities. Very importantly, the way in which our society, at least in the Western world, is organised means that social mobility and access to information is not easily available to the general public. Our European dream, that working hard leads to ultimate success, has to be thought through carefully, we seem to believe that we can go farther than what reality shows us. Do we reward hard work with more opportunities? Is it really only the individual’s personal choice to climb that social ladder or bring about change? I do wonder how we could make a world where access to education, to information and to opportunities is more equal and career pathways are more of a personal choice.

 

 

*One Young World is a registered charity headquartered in London. It is a global forum for young leaders, with an annual summit bringing together youth motivated to bring about social change. You can check the community out here. I attended the summit in Bogota, 2017 as an All Bar None scholar for Hungary and made great connections, as well as some long-term friendships. I was looking for sponsorship to send a Hungarian delegation because in 2018 Hungary was not part of this scholarship scheme anymore. As the registration fee to the summit is quite high, I saw it unlikely that my country would be well-represented on the summit.

** I warmly advise everyone to read Hashi Mohamed’s thoughts, for example here

*** Check out the Ditchley Foundation here

Fujian and the limits of English

This post is about Fujian Province in China and about the limits of speaking English.

I visited Xiamen, the capital of Fujian in November. The main reason for me travelling there was data collection for my research, you can read more in depth about it here. The most important thing I learnt while exploring the region is what it feels like when your only means of communication is gestures and metacommunication. I realised how limited my language abilities are: the languages I speak fluently are all European.  Thinking back, non-European languages weren’t even on offer in high school. Choosing foreign languages to learn based on proximity of course make sense. However, I wonder whether this approach should change in our continuously globalising and inter-connected world.

My failure to communicate in Xiamen resulted in the fact that most of the time I didn’t know what the places I visited and food I ate are called, what they contain, why things happened around me, where buses and trains were departing. Receptionists in the hostel where I was staying used a translator app to get across the basics for me. I was thankful for technology to allow us to communicate in this way. On the other hand, not being able to speak made me spend so much time in silence that after a while I was craving for human contact. So during my last night, when I overheard three people of my age speaking in English, I couldn’t help stopping and asking them if I can join for a drink.

I joined a group of tourists from Sichuan travelling to the mountains of Fujian, to the villages and tea gardens of the Hakka people. They seemed to know a lot about the area, the Hakka people and tea-making. I would have been interested in learning from them, but the language barrier didn’t allow me to do so. I had to accept my lack of knowledge and my lack of understanding. This made me reflect on what I have been reading lately from the minimalists: to be okay with not knowing. To accept a lack of information and the lack of looking constantly for information. That even with the access to technology and internet, it is all right to switch off from time to time and allow ourselves not to know things.

On a different note, I was fascinated by the use of bike sharing platforms, such as Ofo bikes and Mobike, platforms we also have available in the UK. Ofo, with a fleet of about 50 bikes, was introduced in Cambridge a year ago and I used to use them quite frequently. I saw them in London too, but the bikes there are in a much worse condition, probably because Santander Bank’s bike scheme in London works so well already. Nevertheless, Ofo bikes in Xiamen are operating on a whole different level. There are everywhere, there are tens of millions of them and all are in good condition. I wish we had this in London.

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Ofo bikes in central Xiamen

For a couple of nights, I stayed in a district called Siming. The impression I got is that Siming is the ‘new cool district’ for young people, with bars and art galleries around. I passed by this cafe selling its products with a quote from Che Guevara: “Let us face reality so that we are committed to our ideal.”

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Bars of Siming

As I mentioned above, I traveled to the Fujian mountains with a group of visitors from Sichuan to see the ‘Hakka Tulous’. These Hakka villages are a popular target of domestic tourism and I was by far the only European-looking in the area. Accordingly, there was nothing available in English, so literally all I know about the place comes from Wikipedia. The Tulous used to be fortified earth buildings where the Hakka communities were living together. They are surrounded by tea plantations in the mountains.

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A Hakka Tulou

In Xiamen, I enjoyed walking by the beach in the early morning. This was the time when fishermen returned from fishing and people surrounded their boats to buy fresh seafood. On the picture, one of the islands is Kinmen Community, a territory belonging to Taiwan. When walking by the sea, I found military checkpoints and soldiers watching the sea, as well as memorials of past fights of these communities.

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How recycling should be done according to people from Xiamen:

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Walking down a street in a banana plantation somewhere in the countryside of Fujian, on the way to the mountains and Hakka villages. The climate here was very hot, very humid and foggy in the same time. It reminded me of the subtropical microclimate of the Turkish coast of the Black sea:

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This trip, as a whole, made me think a lot about our ‘community bubbles’. In the West, we use Whatsapp, we use Facebook, we follow BBC and CNN, a lot of us speak some English and we think that all these mean our freedom as citizens and as individuals. Experiencing when these conditions change or are not available made me realise how dependent we are on the bubble we create for ourselves.

 

On the role of TRUST when conducting research

Back in 2016 when I was doing my masters, I was studying how women experience living on the autism spectrum. Now, two years later, I’ve started my PhD and I’m looking at people’s understandings of global mental health and leadership. There is something strikingly similar in these two topics of research and it is TRUST.

This is something that shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. In my masters project, as I had previously written about it here, I was interviewing women on the autistic spectrum and staff members of autism care services. My first strategy for recruiting participants was as follows: I sent out a large number of emails to services and to platforms for service users and I was waiting for people to volunteer and express an interest in participating. When this strategy failed badly, I emailed leads of autism care services to see if they were willing to facilitate my recruitment. When this strategy failed too, I gave up on contacting people electronically. Instead, I started volunteering in some of these services and organised a field trip to those that were farther away. Only when women and staff members 1) met me in person, 2) spent time with me, 3) got a first-hand account of what and why I want to do, only then did they trust me with their time and were willing to participate in my study.

Two years after this project, I am one month into my PhD. As a first, exploratory work, I wanted to run focus group discussions with people involved in the adaptation and implementation of global child mental health interventions. There was a perfect occasion to do this: stakeholders from various backgrounds and countries, WHO and large NGOs got together in early November in a southern city of China for a conference. Following a series of lucky encounters (which I will write about in a later post on global mental health), I had the chance to actually travel there and do this work.

In the focus groups, I was interested in what they think about the role of culture in adaptations and implementation, what decision making processes across international and local organisations look like and should look like. Such questions, of course, can be very sensitive. Interests can clash, opinions may differ, issues with funding or politics may come up. So again, I was really worried about recruitment. Moreover, I knew I had to recruit on location: as I started the PhD a month ago, I only got ethics clearance two days before I flew to China. So how did I finally end up having participants at all and having enough of them for two focus group discussions?

I had gotten to know some colleagues from the field in Rotterdam the last year, in case of a big meeting of autism researchers, the International Society of Autism Research’s annual get-together. I met them almost accidentally, on a NGO’s reception that was held outside the conference. We had wine together and talked about the trips we planned following the meeting, as some of us traveled from far away. Some planned a visit to Amsterdam, others preferred to stay in The Hague. We went for sightseeing the next day. At the time, I didn’t think that these conversations over wine in a reception or over coffee on a touristy street of Rotterdam would matter later on.

Some time after the conference in Rotterdam, I attended a completely different event: a youth empowerment meeting on business and entrepreneurship in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Coincidentally, some of these colleagues were there too. I say coincidentally, but the world gets very small in niche fields like global mental health. So we met again, had great conversations and night-outs in the Argentinian winter.

Two months later came along the focus group discussion I wanted to run during the China conference. On the first day of the meeting, I was standing nervously on the stage, having five minutes to briefly summarise what I want to do and distribute all the necessary paperwork for potential participants to fill in. Having explained my research and distributed information sheets and consent forms, I had to then sit back and relax: as a researcher you are not supposed to push anyone to participate, the interest should come pro-actively from potential participants.

The very first people who signed up for my discussions were the ones I had gotten to know earlier in Rotterdam and Buenos Aires. In the coffee breaks, I couldn’t help overhear discussions about my study and one colleague or another convincing each other to go and attend.

There are great guide books on qualitative research methodology. The gold standard for me is Braun and Clarke’s 2006 work on thematic analysis, but there is a lot more out there. What I would add to these textbooks is the ultimate need to be trustworthy and to be trusted both on a personal and on a professional level by the audience one is interested in working with, while acknowledging the responsibility this means from an ethical and research perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Little nice things in London

I have recently moved to London to pursue my PhD. Before moving here, I was told on many occasions about different stereotypes of life in the City. A lot of them are true of course. With a couple of posts from now on, I will share little nice things that make this capital a beautiful place to live in. Not much text is needed here. Hidden, minor details only.

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Regent’s Park, inspired by a Scandinavian autumn.

 

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I was living in Latvia for some time and have been craving for the Latvian culture and beer for long. Who would have guessed that there is a small Latvian bar in the basement of a hotel near Hyde Park? The place where one can find the unique cuisine and selection of beers of this lovely country in the Baltics. On the night when I visited, they organised a beer festival and there was a large family gathering too. I felt as if all the Latvian expats in London were there in that tiny basement. It felt comfy and I could practice the leftover of my Latvian language skills.

Meet first, then work

As an undergraduate student I was thaught that it is only your CV, your cover letter and your references that exist in the real adult world and on the job market. It is your previous experience that will help you to get to know professionals in your field. In Hungary, when I developed my interest in autism, I applied for a grant for a field trip across the country and did a study visit in various adult care services for people living with autism. And I didn’t have any difficulties with doing so, as my supervisor gave me all the contacts I needed. With her reference, I had no problems reaching any of the organisations, I felt welcomed during each of my visits and learnt a lot eventually.

So when I came to the UK I thought it would be nice to go on with this and get to know how social care and health care works in the field of autism. I very easily managed to visit what is available in Cambridgeshire. The presence and reference of the University ultimately allowed me to get in touch with anyone.

However, I desperately wanted to see the services of Scotland. The reason for this is that I went to the international conference of Autism Europe in Edinburgh back in September and there I learnt about the new Scottish strategy and was actually advised to visit services available in Scotland. So, being a passionate person, never hesitating about contacting people and asking, I did eventually contact Scottish Autism. I have been in touch with them for almost a month before my visit.

However, I had this weird feeling that they didn’t really want me to go there, as if they were sceptical about me being a reliable professional. They only let me visit their centre in Scotland but not their transition or diagnostic services and I didn’t understand why it was so, as I sent my CV, my research proposal, my ethical clearance and my references as well.

So this weekend I finally flew to Edinburgh. I took the train to Stirling and from there to Alloa. The research manager of Scottish Autism was waiting for me at the train station, picked me up and then told me about the area while driving to New Struan School. I spent a day in Alloa and got to know how social care and research works there.

So the school itself is for children living with autism – when planning the building, people living on the spectrum were actually involved and the design takes into account special needs. For example, the colour of the walls differ according to the function of the rooms. They have around 30 children and they employ 100 staff members working with the pupils, which means that there are at least 3 people for one child.

However, New Struan isn’t only a school: the building is home to Scottish Autism’s research centre as well. This was what I particularly appreciated. Researchers in Psychology, in Mental Health and in allied disciplines tend to forget about the real world and have just very limited experience with the people they are actually working with or looking at. Therefore the fact that these researchers are in the same environment as the students are adds something special to exploring autism.

Having visited the school and the research center, I also registered some interviews for my research.  Everyone was superhelpful around me, wanted to show and tell me more and more. This was the point when I figured out why I wasn’t allowed to visit more of their services. They told me that they finally knew me in person and saw my motivation and my interests and from that point on they would be more than happy to cooperate and work together on any future projects. It is not that they are closed and they wouldn’t want professionals learn from them it’s just the way they protect the people they try to help. So this became my final conclusion from the whole study trip: meet first, show that you are worth talking to and then open up for work in the future.

Pictures from the Fenland

The usual visitor in Cambridge walks around the stunning historical monuments, colleges and churches in the centre from Kings Parade to the Round Church. However, there’s much more to experience. So if you had enough from the mainstream touristic attractions, then I definitely have some suggestions: cycle or walk to the Fenland.

My British friends say that the Fenland in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the whole UK. It’s the marshy region around Cambridge, although most of the fens were drained a long while ago. The small villages and little towns make their living from agriculture. Compared to the stereotypical English weather, the climate is quite dry and windy (which you still need to take seriously, you get soaked one time per week on average in the winter). The landscape is flat and you often bump into windmills that evoke those from the Netherlands or from the island of Saaremaa in Estonia.

We have already visited the Fenland couple of times. It is worth walking and cycling as well, but for this latter I recommend to buy a map for bike routes in Oxfam, because GoogleMaps isn’t always clear on which way to go. The bike routes are all well-signed all the way.

For the first time, we cycled from Cambridge through Girton towards Oakington and through a natural reserve to St Ives. Just a little bit of taster:

The second time we cycled from Cambridge to Histon, Cottenham, Longbeach and then through Waterbeach back to Milton and Cambridge along the river Cam.

Finally, if you don’t feel like cycling, visit Ely by train. The train takes you there in around 20 minutes for 2 pounds with Railcard. We visited Ely shortly before Christmas, when they organised a Christmas market in their stunning cathedral! Besides, people are always proud of what they have… in Ely, you can try the “traditional Fenland tea” -go for it 🙂

TopTips in Cambridge

When I moved to Cambridge, my situation was quite unstable, let’s put it this way… As my college couldn’t offer accomodation to me due to renovations,  I didn’t know where I was going to live and on top of this I still didn’t hear back from my funding body if I finally got a scholarship or not. Under these circumstances, I really had to find clever ways of living in an economic way. So here in this post let me give you tips on how to save money in Cambridge!

There are a lot of options of where to do your weekly shopping in Cam: Sainsbury’s is obviously very popular, but Cooperative and Tesco also have stores around the town. However, I would warmly suggest ALDI in North Cambridge or ASDA in the east for the best prices. I found that everything is considerably cheaper in these stores and the quality is still good – as of course health is first!

You will probably need pillows, blankets, cutlery and kitchenware and other gadgets for your daily living. For these things, go to Grafton and look for Wilko and Poundland. Wilko offers quality products for home, while Poundland is the heaven of gadgets, it has the essentials for you: bike lockers, bike lamps, batteries, plates, cutlery, cups. What else would you need? Also, Poundland offers seasonal decorations for your room. And finally, unlike the Hungarian one-euro shops, everything really costs one pound.

Then, you will come to the point when you will want to go shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories. Well, you will find plenty of brands in Cambridge. However, the economic option is Primark: beautiful, quality clothes for 5-15 pounds on three floors for both men and women.

When you don’t have time to cook and want to eat out, I warmly suggest Gardenia, a Greek restaurant for hamburger or chips. The other option is Bella Italia, offering 50% reduction for students.

When it comes to pubbing and beer, the prices are almost identical everywhere. This was actually suprising to me, as in Budapest the more central you are in the city, the more you pay. Similarly, the more fancy the place looks like, the more a beer costs. Contrarily, here in Cambridge all the pubs look fascinating and there is not much of a difference in their prices… so just enjoy 🙂

Finally, for economic programmes in town, I will get back with another post soon!